Benedetta Barzini does not want to be the subject of a documentary. But her son, director Beniamino Barrese, insists on making a film about her. Yeah, it’s basically Tell Them Who You Are and Mistaken for Strangers all over again, at least at first. The easiest idea that there is in documentary is to make a film about your parent or other close relative, especially if they were famous. But it’s also one of the hardest ideas to get right. Having a parent who is combative during the process, not even merely reluctant, can be problematic on many levels.
Barrese’s film, his feature directorial debut, is called The Disappearance of My Mother. The meaning of the title is a mystery for much of the film, even while he explains early on with some opening titles that his mother has said she is leaving and never coming back. Where is she going? Is she dying? Planning to take her own life? Simply moving away and becoming a recluse? Regardless, he really wants to record her one last time. Benedetta finally agrees because, as she says, better to hurt herself than him.
What ensues can sometimes be painful for the audience, as well, in an uncomfortable but still engrossing fashion. Benedetta constantly asks her son to stop filming and swears at him for doing so at awkward times, like when she’s sleeping. Even her old friend, Lauren Hutton, berates Barrese about having his camera in their faces as they’re trying to reconnect (he retreats behind some plants). For Benedetta, though, there’s something to her objections. She was a model long ago, the first to grace the cover of Vogue Italia and a regular at Warhol’s Factory, but she later became a feminist and Marxist critic of her own profession and, apparently, of images in general.
As a filmmaker, Barrese is now the one who is all about images, and that creates a dramatic dynamic and conflict between him and his mother. They have a dysfunction, yet also a bond, that is probably unhealthy. There are moments in his documentary where Barrese is filming his mother changing or going to the bathroom. And he comes off as having an obsession with her, the way he lingers on her with his lens, the way he includes a casting session to find young models to re-create Benedetta’s work of half a century ago… But he’s just a young man curious about his aging mother, who’d had him late in life and never told him of, let alone talked about her glamorous past.
And she just wants her son to be present, not behind a camera. She can be cruel but she definitely loves her baby boy — when she cooperates and plays along it comes off as a total surprise. A psychoanalyst could probably have a field day reviewing The Disappearance of My Mother. For me, I just found Benedetta to be an extraordinarily interesting woman and am inspired to read more about her complicated beliefs about modeling (she is shown returning to that world for various unclarified appearances) and her theories about media and gender and more (the class we see her teaching at the University of Milan as a professor of fashion and anthropology looks incredible).
And by the end, I came to appreciate the battle between mother and son, even enjoying it like some kind of intense sporting match, though it’s hard to ignore the fact that, all the while, I’m on her side and ironically that means I’m technically against the very documentary that is making me aware of my own dilemma. Who doesn’t love a good paradoxical film viewing experience?
As for the feeling of not getting to know enough about Benedetta or Beniamino or their family history, well, another point for her, because she believes images and films are lies that can’t possibly capture a real person. Oh, and don’t you dare walk out of this film feeling depressed, though that’s certainly a possible effect. Stay for the post-credits scene to understand why.